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938 1853 V. 2
GENIUS AND POETICAL WORKS OF JOHN MILTON.
We have already traced Milton's history. The history of his fame is equally curious and interesting, although it may be told in much briefer compass. Foreign countries heard of his name while it was yet obscure in his own land. His
progress through Italy was a procession of triumph, while in Britain his merits were known only to his personal friends. Returned to London, he subsided into a schoolmaster; nor did his works, for some time, dispel the mists which seemed to have gathered, early and dark, around his destiny. It was infamy which first made him famous in England—the infamy of advocating and acting on a new and heterodox theory of divorce, and it was his personal misery which drove him to support this obnoxious doctrine. So that thus Milton's, like man's, greatness had its root in his grief, if not partly also in his fault, and he served to exemplify the statement long afterwards made by another poet
“ Most wretched men Are cradled into poetry by wrong,
They learn in suffering what they teach in song." Milton, the elegant scholar, was permitted to battle on with his nephews as he best could; but Milton, the “ divorcist," awoke one morning and found himself (in) “famous." Το
this equivocal reputation, his summons to appear before Parliament, for his literary misdemeanours, contributed; and it assumed a hue of richer darkness, when the “divorcist” sublimated into the defender of regicide, and dared to apologise for what Cromwell dared to do. Then, unquestionably, Milton's reputation culminated, although his fame was yet following it haud passibus aquis. To literary England and Europe he seemed little better than a fierce, discontented scholar, whom disappointed personal passions, and soured pride, had driven to support indefensible measures and theories, by sophistry, declamation, and outrageous abuse, disguised all in noble Latin. Then, ere he had time to right himself by appearing more fully in his poetic character, came the Restoration, and his extensive, though uneasy and unsettled, repute went out like a shooting star for a season. With difficulty did even the great orb of Paradise Lost labour up against the obscurity which supervened, especially as it was a “darkness mingled with blood.” Such poetry from a regicide was not expected, and, when it came, was looked at with suspicion, and deemed a daring monstrosity like the killing of Charles himself. In spite of suspicion and prejudice, however, the book made its way, and many who hated Milton the Republican and Divorcist, were compelled, perhaps with pale cheeks and gnashing teeth, to surrender their admiration to Milton the Poet. Then came the great man's death, and this, for a time, seemed to exert no perceptible influence upon his fame. The prejudice against his name, and the admiration of his poetry, continued to struggle with each other; nor did even the long and elaborate encomium of Addison fully turn the balance. Indeed, we see the vibration of opinion nowhere so fully as in Johnson's Life, and in some of the notes of Thomas Warton. It was not till the prevalence of liberal opinions, at the end of the 18th century, had taught men not only to bear with, but to believe many of Milton's political sentiments, as well as to admire his genius, that the full tide of his glory set in, and that we may conceive the first smile of satisfaction beginning to break across the look of serene expectancy worn by his Mighty Shade. It is, perhaps, ever thus in the world's conduct to men of
lofty genius. At first they are treated as composites, and subjected to severe and varied analysis their creeds, personal failings, and the painful incidents of their story, are considered apart from their genius, and judged of according to arbitrary and conventional standards. At this stage men say,
16 What a pity Milton was a Republican, Dante on bad terms with Gemma, Burns born a peasant, and Keats bred an apothecary's boy! what different men and poets might they have become had it been otherwise !” But, by and by, the sublime unity of their Being becomes apparent, and we feel that (always excepting their voluntary vices) the position, circumstances, and callings of men of genius, are precisely what, for the development of their minds, the fulfilment of their mission, and the full impression of their full nature, they should have been. Milton, had he not been art and part in Regicide, would not have been competent to write Paradise Lost, or Samson Agonistes. Dante's unhappy marriage added the necessary acid and edge to his character, and fitted him to heat seven times hotter the furnace of his Hell. Burns' brawny nature took root and vigour from the homely soil where it appeared.
Keats' confinement in London aided him, when he did see the country, to form those fresh, deep, lingering impressions of Nature, which, in general, childhood only is able to feel, and which no poetry but his has fully expressed. Genius always appears in its own dress, whether sorry or splendid, and the wise will be ready to accept both the wearer and the vesture.
Now, we need not be afraid or ashamed to say, that we like Milton better for his Republicanism, and see in it, not a derogation from, but an expression of, his grand and peculiar genius. He was, indeed, that rarest of all beings—a Republican King. Endowed himself with a royal nature, and feeling himself the first of living men, he yet contended for the equality of mankind, and the sovereignty of nations. ceptible,” says Emerson, " as Burke to the attractions of historical prescription, of royalty, of chivalry, of an ancient Church installed in cathedrals and illustrated by old martyrdoms, he threw himself, the flower of elegance, on the side of the reeking conventicle—the side of humanity unlearned and
unadorned.” This (although we question the propriety of the terms “reeking and unlearned,” applied to churches where Owen, Howe, Charnock, and many of similar accomplishments ministered) is the truth. He left the “House called Beautiful,” its beauty having, indeed, to his eyes, somewhat abated, for the conflict with Apollyon in the Valley of Humiliation. It was not that he became a hater of the elegant and artistic, but that he became aware of a severer elegance, a sterner art, a higher beauty, connected with Conflict, Liberty, and Truth, and felt that to stoop is often to conquer, and that there are eyes to which a descent like that from Comus to Samson Agonistes seems a step in Jacob's ladder upwards. His deepening zeal in politics and religion was faithfully parallelled by his advancement in genuine poetic power. Before speaking farther of Milton's own genius, we have a few words to say about his critics. A motley collection, verily they are Addison comes first, in that very long and loving analysis of the Poet's principal work, which, poor and artificial as it now seems, did good at the time, and served as a plain finger-post quietly pointing up to the stupendous sublimities of the subject. Its criticism is cramped, but its spirit is fine, and the extracts it gives are, in general, selected on the principle that they are characteristic, and can stand alone. Johnson's critique seems the short-hand outline of a whole volume of admiration and hatred, respect and scorn, the materials of which had been collecting in his breast for a lifetime, and in its sour concentration lies much of its power. Whole articles have been written, to answer some of its separate dicta, or abate the force of some of its single sneers! Most of those who have replied to it, have weakened their cause by towering into a passion, and calling the old Polyphemus harsh names. But mere foam, although able to cover up for a short time, is not able to quench and obliterate any colossal injustice. Sir Egerton Brydges, and Percival Stockdale, make violent but ineffectual attempts at reprisals. More ludicrous is the aspect of the Wartons, who wrote ere Johnson's critical authority was lessened, and who just dare to peep out of their holes, and to mutter words of Lilliputian protest against this enormity of the “Man Mountain.” Todd, et hoc